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The Black Hole

Science Policy in Canada: We should be ashamed…

When asked to identify the most important issues affecting their country, Canadians often list three items: economy, healthcare, and environment. Though often underappreciated, the advancement of science and technology is a common thread that underpins and indeed is inextricably tied to these three major issues. We live in a world where the economy is driven by innovation, medicine requires further advances each day to save and improve lives, and an environmental crisis is upon us as our climate changes as a direct consequence of our modern lifestyle.

BY DAVID KENT | JAN 21 2010

So… Nature is a pretty important scientific journal right? What does it say about Canada?
In 2008 we had a glowing review of Toronto as a major destination on the world tour of medical science hubs

When the University of Toronto managed to lure chemical geneticist Guri Giaever away from Stanford University two years ago, part of the inducement was a new, bigger lab, and part was a prestigious government-funded research chair. But the biggest factor in the move, Giaever says, was the colleagues with whom she would be working. “In terms of what I’m doing, I would pretty much say hands down that Toronto is the best place in the world,” she says. ~Nature 2008

There was even cautious optimism about the growth of industrial “knowledge translation”, a problem on top of the list of Canadian government officials and the subject of multiple crisis inspiring reports

And now…? Right after slamming Canada as a terrible destination for PDFs (because we chronically underpay and under-recognize highly talented researchers), Nature published an editorial that called for some major rethinking at the government levels. For good reads on this, visit Rob Annan’s blog Don’t Leave Canada Behind and Maryse de la Giroday’s blog at Frogheart.ca ( here and here). They’ve done a good job discussing the issues raised in the article and some follow up discussion on how much attention, or lack of attention, is paid to science policy by Canadian political parties.

Of interest is Preston Manning’s keynote address at last year’s Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto… I’d advise a listen. He makes me fear for Science on the Hill and the general lack of literacy (or interest) in science by politicians. Not to say that there aren’t great examples of scientifically literate politicians (e.g.: Marc Garneau and his emphasis on science and technology, including a full report style briefing to the Liberal Party), but the numbers are few and the reach is clearly limited with respect to actual policy that’s adopted as evidenced by analyzing the current official party platforms.

Moreover, it is important to recognize that scientific research is a long term on-going effort. The process of funding science must therefore be viewed as a never-ending process that must be sustained on a continued and competitive basis beyond the standard political horizon.
~Marc Garneau

The problem right now is that our international reputation appears to be: ‘Canada does pretty good basic research, but it’s only Canada…no real hope of being at the leading edge and besides, the pay is terrible’. To change this, we need an active commitment from the political community, but we also need to pull our socks up as a scientific community, stop complaining, and improve our own situation. We can’t expect government officials and politicians to come to scientists asking for advice on how to make policy – they are the professionals at making policy. Be smarter than that… academics make up a very minor fraction of the population (i.e.: politicians don’t require our vote) and scientists are perhaps the worst for cozying up in their dark offices content that the country’s political situation has no bearing on them. We have to create political capital for why science is so important, so fundamental, to a successful knowledge based economy – not to mention how critical it is to rebuild our country’s reputation on the international science scene if we hope to attract and retain the world’s best scientists.

When asked to identify the most important issues affecting their country, Canadians often list three items: economy, healthcare, and environment. Though often underappreciated, the advancement of science and technology is a common thread that underpins and indeed is inextricably tied to these three major issues. We live in a world where the economy is driven by innovation, medicine requires further advances each day to save and improve lives, and an environmental crisis is upon us as our climate changes as a direct consequence of our modern lifestyle.

In order to train and attract the best researchers, sustain innovation, and maintain its competitiveness at the international level, Canada needs a comprehensive national science strategy that will increase the appreciation of science and technology in its society and make it more accessible to its citizens. I envision a country that values scientific discovery and advancement and recognizes its importance in daily decision-making processes. Scientists need to be a part of this process… write opinion editorials, give public lectures, train students with an open mind to their possible “alternative careers”, and above all don’t put on those politics blinkers – it very much affects you and your field of research.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SubC / February 9, 2010 at 15:58

    I am surprised that you would still refer to the Nature article on Canadian postdocs which was so full of lies, damn lies and assorted misrepresentations. As a postdoc in Canada, I am ashamed that there wasn’t a stronger response against this piece of bad publicity. As for the blogs, the name “Dont leave Canada behind” suggests an inherent bias and I’m hardly surprised that they highlight the negatives at the expense of teh positives. While all postdocs would agree that the general picture is far from rosy, harping on the shortcomings is not the only way to move forward and make real change. As for tjose who suggests it is a uniquely Canadian thing, please take a look at Science Careers or The Scientist to get a perspective from US postdocs (hardly better a lot than us). Instead of criticising anything and everything, let us all work together with the funding agencies, govt and universities to make a change for the better !!

  2. Dave K / February 10, 2010 at 11:15

    Hi SubC, 
    Nice to have you back – always great to get your comments.  We do try to present the positive happenings in Canada (science media centre, stem cell charter, various outreach groups, etc) but if you ever want to help us enrich the site with more positive stories, please do email me at contact@scienceadvocacy.org and we can give you some space as a guest blogger – you clearly enjoy discussing the issues and our readers would benefit from some well thought out articles from you.
    As for the Nature article, I didn’t link to it in this post because of the inaccuracies you stated, but I do think that it is still critically important to recognize that when a journal so widely read as Nature puts out multiple negative items, the impact on the perception of the state of science (or science policy) in our country is dealt a severe blow.  In particular, It has repercussions on our ability to recruit and retain excellent scientists and trainees, so it deserves mention.  
    I agree with you that 100% negativity is not the way to go and that the state of affairs in other countries is not necessarily better than Canada’s – but I do think that the goal going forward needs to involve knowing which countries do particular things better than ours so we can adopt or create similar movements in Canada.
    I look forward to hearing from you.